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Guide to Creating Language Learning Habits

A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules. — Anthony Trollope

Here’s something they rarely tell you:

To learn a language, you’ve got to change your lifestyle. And like any lifestyle change, it’s got to be a built around habits you create — an automatic part of your daily life — not something you do every once in a while.

There are a million ways to learn a language, but if you don’t know how to change your own behavior first, none of them are going to work for you.

Just like dieting, exercise, or any other New Year’s ‘resolutiony’ type of goal that usually comes to mind, if you take on learning a new language full on with preposterous goals (like buying a stack of books that you promise to read, or trying to memorize fifty vocabulary words every day), you’ve most likely already failed.

To succeed at learning a new language, you’ve got to build a system of tiny steps that move you forward fast enough to see progress, but not so fast that you’re overwhelmed and give up.

This guide will show you how to do just that.

The problem, and how to beat it

The problem we’ve all faced before when trying to change our behavior is that we change too much too soon because we can’t wait to be awesome.

By biting off more than we can chew, we’re only met with discouragement once our initial motivation fades — and it always does, right?

There’s a much better way to change your behavior, and this can be true for learning a language or any other major change you want to make in your daily life.

To learn a language, you’re going to need a daily routine that you actually do every day. Before you jump in and start designing a routine, though, you’ll be much more successful if you practice making very tiny changes in your life.

Dr. BJ Fogg is a professor at Stanford, and his free mini-program, Tiny Habits, is the perfect way to practice making your daily routine look like how you want it. In this very short program, you’ll learn several successful methods for creating habits in your life that lead to the long term goals you desire.

After a week of that, you’ll be ready to take what you learned and apply it learning a language.

(Another great resource for habit building is The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.).

Summary of Tiny Habits for Language Learners

We’re big fans of Dr. Fogg’s methodology, and we want everyone in our Fluentli community to apply these ideas to developing a language learning routine.

The basic idea is to think of a habit that has a positive influence on learning a language that can easily be worked into your current schedule — even if you think you have no time.

The habits we should think of are so simple, anybody can do them.

You can browse all of the habits here.

Following Dr. Fogg’s ideas, every new habit needs to be:

  1. Doable in 30 – 60 seconds. (The idea is to keep it short at first, lengthening it only after the habit is properly anchored.).
  2. Come after something else you already do every day.
  3. Be as simple, planned out, and easy to complete as possible.
  4. Be rewarded after you complete the habit.

Of course, you’ll get practice doing this when you join his program.

We all have different learning styles, and sometimes things you try just won’t help you that much. That’s fine.

When you start a habit that you don’t feel like you’ll enjoy, then you can easily stop it and find a new one to try. And just because something works for you now doesn’t mean it always will. You’ll constantly be changing your routine based on your needs at that time. But you’ll have a serious advantage over everyone else — you’ll be able to bring new habits into your routine anytime you need to.

Once you’ve found some habits that you really enjoy and have effectively worked into your daily routine, you can then work on expanding them. So if you were memorizing one new word after dinner every night, try two, and keep pushing it up as you feel more and more comfortable.

Daily Routine Example

Again, the importance of being able to easily create habits cannot be overstated. If you really want to learn a language, you need your language learning efforts to be automatic. Motivation rises and falls, and is rarely going to win in the evening battle after a long day of, “Do I study Spanish or veg out in front of the TV?”

With a learning habit in place, your mind automatically chooses language learning over anything else.

One key tool for getting your habit in place is The Daily Practice, an amazingly simple but powerful scheduling app online (there’s a mobile version for $0.99). If you know you’re better with pen and paper, a calendar with a big red marker works just as well.

An example of the steps you need to take:

1. Find a habit to try —

Make sure the habit is as easy as possible. If it requires any preparation that can’t be done before hand, forget it. There need to be as few steps as possible. For your first habit, it might be easy to watch 1 minute of a video after brushing your teeth at night.

(Browse the community habits to get started)

2. Add your habit in The Daily Practice —

Go to the Daily Practice and create a new category titled with the language you’re learning. (eg. “Spanish”). Select that you will do this habit every day.

(For a more in depth example of how to use the Daily Practice for learning a language, take a look at this guide.).

3. Have everything ready to go —

If you’re planning to watch a video for 1 minute before bed, have the DVD in the player or the link to the video ready to go. It might not be the first or second night, but at some point, your mind will do everything it can to find an excuse to be lazy. Don’t let it tell you, “Well, it’s just too much trouble to walk over and get the video out of the cabinet and turn on the player, etc., etc.”

4. Attach your habit to a cue —

This concept is taken from the Power of Habit. There are three parts to every habit: cue, habit, and reward. For any habit to work, you need to attach it to a cue, which is an action or a feeling that leads to an already existing behavior. For example, you might already watch TV at a certain time every night.

What is the cue for that?

Hijack that cue with your new habit after you’ve identified what sparks your need to watch TV. Maybe it is getting the kids in bed, pouring a glass of wine or getting a snack. Whenever you do that one thing, that’s when you need to think about turning on your Spanish video.

5. Celebrate remembering your habit —

This might feel odd, because it kind of is, but it really helps in the beginning. So, pride aside, don’t skip this!

Whenever you remember your habit after the cue, stop and congratulate yourself, and feel happy that you remembered to do it. Then, proceed to completing your habit.

6. Complete your habit —

This one is pretty self explanatory. Remember, keeping it as simple as possible is really important. That’s why you’re only watching a little bit of a movie or cartoon.

**You can learn more about language learning strategies later if you don’t have a clue. You might feel like you need to research and find information… Don’t! This will just delay getting started.**

7. Reward yourself, and check off your habit as complete —

Time for a treat. Give yourself a small reward for completing the habit.

This can be anything from posting a tweet or status update to your networks, to getting to watch your favorite TV show (maybe even a piece of chocolate if you’re feeling decadent?).

One of my favorite rewards is actually a form of mental imaging. Imagine yourself as a fluent speaker. Close your eyes, and put yourself in the ideal vacation spot. You then begin talking to a local in his or her language. What are you talking about? Carry this out for a minute or two. Enjoy the fact that you are taking steps toward that reality.

Oh, and then go to Daily Practice and check it off, or put a big red ‘X’ on your calendar. Watch the chain get longer and longer!

Now, seeing it all written out like this might make it seem pretty involved, but it’s really easy! And if it isn’t easy, think of ways to make it even easier.

A few advanced tips

If you have trouble attaching your habit to a cue because you don’t remember to do your habit, you might consider finding a new cue. Also, your habit should always come AFTER a cue, never before.

The most important thing is laying the groundwork for your daily practice. As you get one habit down, you can add others. You can also research learning methods of how to improve the time you spend on your habits later.

I’ll say it again. Keep it easy in the beginning as you possibly can, and you’ll be amazed at how simple it is to study every day.

For a final, inspirational note to remember that it’s more important to take tiny steps forward, we’ll leave you with a quote that we found on the Leaky Grammar Facebook page (a great place to dip your toes into the vast waters, and lexicon, of SLA academia).

Language also develops in surprising ways, and we hardly know yet how this happens… Not every phase and trasnformation looks unambiguously like a step closer to the gaol of proficient language use. By analogy, not every phase in the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly looks to the naive observer like a step toward the goal, quite the contrary. — Claire Kramsch

A word on social celebrating

Remember, it’s really beneficial to celebrate your habits as you’re first remembering to do them. Doing this on a bus might be a little embarrassing, but what about on social media?

We’ve created the #FluentliHabits tag for Twitter users just for this purpose.

You can also post on our Facebook page.

When you remember to do a new habit, tweet with that tag and mention what habit you’re doing. You can search that tag to find all the other people out there doing habits, and connect with those trying the same things.

Finding people doing the same thing creates accountability. People will know what you’re doing, and you’ll not want to let them down. People may also check in with you to make sure you’re doing it.

This also gives you the chance to talk to others about the habit, what works, what doesn’t — you know, learn from others’ mistakes kind of thing.

So give it a shot! Make it public with #FluentliHabits

Help us make the habit bank

Finally, we’re really interested in what kind of habits you come up with, and we’d love to add them to our community habit bank.

By thinking of and creating new habits together as a community, we’ll all be able to discover the best habits that help us reach fluency.

That’s why we’ve created the form below for you to submit your habit ideas.